I find such comparisons misplaced. A company uses your work directly to make profit which in turn allows them to pay you a lot. Academia is a service to the society. I feel way more valuable as a civil servant than if I worked for someone’s profit with 10 times the salary!


@tiago At the risk of starting a flame war (not my intention), I'm going to strongly disagree with the "misplaced comparison" notion here. Keep in mind, I'm mostly familiar with US based institutions, so please take this with a grain of salt. (Also, the original premise is a false dichotomy: "you can work at a company any not benefit society OR work in an academic position and do a public service to society". Most societal wealth generation is done by corporations, not to mention most QOL improvements over the last ~200-500 years were from primarily private enterprise, but that's a whole different rabbit hole...)

Being an academic and performing (publicly or privately funded) research while teaching, etc, at a university is not a service to society in any special sense. It is, frankly a job. A job paid by a (likely for-profit) university, typically with massive endowments (and huge income from undergraduate attendees). Lately, these universities have been finding increasingly asanine reasons to balloon their administration staff to justify skyrocketing tuition costs, despite no appreciable performance improvement to the student's education, nor an improvement in research/graduate student funding by the university. (I'm sure the parallels between big tech and universities are obvious at this point, so I won't belabor the point.)

For example, my university has an endowment of 3.8 Billion dollars. With a B, and that's a mid-sized public institution. The idea that there's "not enough money" to pay professors/research staff/postdocs/graduate students a decent wage for their highly trained skills and expertise is laughable at best, and a baldfaced lie at worst, especially when you consider their actual diversified income streams as well.

Of course, those on the tenure track can cope with their abysmal compensation to talent ratio by claiming they're "performing a public service" (and departments force their graduate students to cope since they have no real negotiating power). In reality, they just care more about status than money, so they either portray the "selfless martyr for a greater cause" trope to accumulating social capital, or they maximize their status-based payoff function in other ways, typically by becoming experts in their fields - even if that field has 0 actual utility (some pure mathematicians have even made this a point of pride). Or both, both is good.

If your goal is status over wealth, that's fine. But treating a class of jobs as worthy of less compensation because you view it as a "public duty/service" isn't rational, it's a passion tax that we have known exists for decades in fields like nursing, geriatric care, and teaching. Basically, passionate people are shafted because they'll deal with it due to their passion to work in the field, and the intelligent ones will find some way to justify it to themselves and others (as exemplified in the original tweet).

Instead of coercing passionate, talented, motivated, highly specialized people to accept subpar working conditions/compensation because they "just care so much", how about we actually pay people based on the amount of value they generate for the institution, rather than exploiting them for cheap labor? If they wise up (as many postdoc candidates have) then we will have a glut of PhDs and a dearth of filled Postdoc positions. Who knows how that'll pan out...

(I'll add sources for my claims in the morning, but I'm on mobile and it's 3am).

If you have time, please let me know what you think; I'd love to hear your perspective 😄 And sorry for the wall of text 😅

@johnabs You are missing some rather central points.

While it's true that many universities in the US are private, and charge high tuition fees, none of them actually fund much research. The vast majority of research money — used to pay PhD students, post-docs, equipment, material, etc — come from government agencies (e.g. NSF, NIH, etc). Basic research is overwhelmingly payed by the tax-payer anywhere on the planet.

@johnabs Basic research is a service to society, very much like nursing, teaching in schools, etc.

Teaching in public universities, like those in EU which charge no tuition, is likewise a public service.

Like I said on twitter: “There are two separate issues here. One is the relative larger compensation of a profit-making job vs a job which is a service to society. Another is the insufficient absolute compensation for the latter. One can accept the existence of one while rejecting the other.”


Thank you for your response!

I appreciate the clarity on the funding issue; however, my point was that despite not funding research, many private and public institutions could do so. In fact, Stanford already does this with a large portion of their endowment interest. Of course, they have $28.9B in endowment, but if we start trimming the fat on administration (or football coaches…), for example, that frees up more funds that could be allocated to better compensating researchers. Example:

On to the societal service perspective; I’d like to understand how you would define the term. I find the EU examples you provided more agreeable/obvious (e.g. tuition free colleges), so it may be my experience with the US public/private sector jiggery-pokery that is clouding my evaluation here.

Finally, the real question I have is this: academics are well aware of the grueling hours, the comparatively low pay, and the almost monastic devotion required to achieve tenure. So what’s the incentive/motivation, and why select academia over the alternative, if not for status? If the answer is truly a well-intentioned “I’m just passionate about it”, I think the passion tax analogy applies well here, and it should be addressed.

For me, I absolutely love doing research, but a well-paid, 9-5, more comfortable, private research position at Google’s DeepMind seems more palatable than the academic alternative, despite my love for the academy and the desire for freedom I know comes with it.

If you don’t mind me asking, what was your motivation to pick one over the other? And if you could propose a solution, to the original post-doc (et-al) compensation conundrum what would it be?

Thanks again for the discussion, I’m looking forward to hearing to your perspective! 😄

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